Violence against women in armed conflict: The case of DRC*

Yakın Ertürk, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences


The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), despite democratic elections and the approval of a constitution by public referendum in 2006, continues to be one of the gravest humanitarian crises and women are wedged at its center.  

The recent history of the DRC is marked by two major armed conflicts, involving a multitude of actors. The first was an aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Rwanda, supported by Uganda, invaded the DRC in 1996. The second war erupted in 1998, this time putting Laurent Kabila’s forces, supported by several African countries, including Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, against an alliance of armed groups supported by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Control over the rich natural resources of this poverty stricken country is central to the conflicts[1]

From four to five million people died as a result of the direct and indirect consequences of these wars. Since the election, armed hostilities involving the State security forces, dissident factions of the Congolese Army (FARDC) and various non‑State armed groups are continuing to take lives. The Eastern Congo region is particularly unstable due to the presence of estimated 6,000 to 7,000 members of foreign non-State armed groups, including the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR)[2].  

In January 2008, a Conference on Peace, Security and Development for the Kivus led to the signing of the 23 January “Act of Engagement” by Congolese armed groups and to the creation of the government-led Amani Programme for Security, Pacification, Stabilization and Reconstruction of the Kivus. In spite of these promising initiatives, the situation in the Kivus has not fundamentally improved and there are well grounded reasons to believe that the hostilities and human rights violations will continue to escalate if urgent action is not taken. 

The continued war on women in the DRC takes place against such a backdrop. 

The Nature and Trends in Violence against Women

While women in the DRC encounter violence of all forms, sexual violence has become the defining feature of the country’s turmoil. Extreme levels of sexual violence, perpetrated by foreign non‑State armed groups, State security forces and civilians, persist in the areas of Eastern Congo where fighting is continuing. However, sexual violence is not restricted to zones of armed conflict; it is rampant in the whole country. 

There is no comprehensive data about the extent of sexual violence in the country, but NGOs and UN reports give a sense of its gravity. For example, according to MONUC, there were 14,000 and 13,000 estimated rapes in 2005 and 2006. UNICEF and partners recorded 12,226 victims of sexual violence in the two Kivus from January to August 2007[3]. Women are also subjected to sexual abuse under detention. In the first six months of 2007, MONUC documented 16 such cases in prisons, police stations or other detention facilities. Reports from Kinshasa Central Prison in Makala also indicate that prison guards have forced female detainees into prostitution. 

What is worrisome is that the number of rapes committed by civilians is on the rise. Reports show that 40 to 60 per cent of the rapes are now committed by civilians[4]. While some of these perpetrators are said to be demobilized militiamen, who were reintegrated without any rehabilitation measures, others are ordinary men who have adopted wartime conduct simply because it is possible to do so. Clearly, the atrocities of the war, committed in absolute impunity, have eroded all social sanctions in the Congolese society, thereby unleashing an unrestrained transgression on women’s bodies. As one woman’s rights activist explained: “In the past, burglars would rob a house and then leave. Today, they will first rape all the women in the house and then steal”. 

The victims are increasingly young girls. Violence in some cases is motivated by the myth that raping a virgin cures HIV and AIDS. The Hospital of Médecins sans Frontières in Bunia (Ituri), for example, reported that one in six patients (17 per cent) who was treated at the hospital for rape ‑related injuries in the first half of 2007 was younger than 12 years of age. According to 2007 UN figures, out of 350 rape cases reported every month in North Kivu, around a third was committed against children under the age of 18.  

While sexual violence continues to terrorize women in the DRC, there has been a heightened threat on local women who have been working under dire conditions to provide support for victims and raise international awareness of the human rights situation in the country. The lives of these women and their families are at extreme risk and require that legislative and institutional measures be taken to address the threats and violence they face, and ensure a protective environment for their work[5]

Sexual abuse committed by foreign-armed groups

The worst crisis of violence against women documented so far is experienced in the Kivus. In the first six months of 2007, the Provincial Synergy to Combat Sexual Violence in South Kivu[6] recorded 4,500 new cases of sexual violence, of which 70 per cent were committed by the FDLR, 16 per cent by the FARDC and National Police (PNC) and 14 per cent by civilians; 13 per cent of the victims were girls younger than 18 years old.  

FDLR and its various factions, who are among the major perpetrators of rape in Eastern Congo, operate mainly from dense forest areas and terrorize the local population by raiding settlements, looting, murdering, gang‑raping and abducting women and girls who are taken to the forest, where they are sexually abused and enslaved. 

A number of FDLR/Rasta fighters are Rwandan nationals, some of whom are thought to be implicated in the Rwandan genocide. The sexual atrocities committed in South Kivu are indeed reminiscent of those perpetrated by Interahamwe militia during the Rwandan genocide. The atrocities are structured around rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage. They aim at the complete physical and psychological destruction of women with implications for the entire society. Women are brutally gang‑raped, often in front of their families and communities. In numerous cases, men are forced at gunpoint to rape their own daughters, mothers or sisters. In some cases women and girls were shot or stabbed in their genital organs after they were raped. Women who survived months of enslavement reported that their tormentors had forced them to eat excrement or the flesh of murdered relatives. 

Sexual abuse committed by State forces

In the Equateur region (situated in the North‑West of the DRC), where armed conflict ended several years ago, sexual violence continues, the main perpetrators being the PNC, FARDC and FARDC Naval Forces. Relationships between the local population and the central authorities remain volatile since a large part of the local population reportedly supports the opposition movement of Jean Pierre Bemba. The local population is very sensitive to actual or perceived governmental injustices, especially if they involve State security forces. Acts of violent self - justice occur frequently. On several occasions, State security forces have responded with armed and organized reprisals that indiscriminately targeted the civilian population, involving looting, torture, ill-treatment and rape, and carried out in public.  

An illustrative case is the infamous Songo Mboyo incident. In December 2003, soldiers from the 9th Battalion stationed in Songo Mboyo (600 km north‑east of Mbandaka) mutinied after rumours that the commanders had stolen their salaries. They looted the village and raped at least 200 women. One victim described how she was gang‑raped by 17 soldiers, before the men forced her father at gun point to rape her. During the course of the investigation, victims and witnesses received death threats and had to be relocated to other areas. Six soldiers were eventually convicted for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. All six men escaped from prison in 2007 under dubious circumstances[7]

Sexual abuse committed by peacekeepers

The peacekeeping troops who are posted in the DRC to protect civilians have also been implicated with sexual exploitation of Congolese women and girls. In 2004, in response to media reports, an investigation conducted by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services in Bunia (Ituri District) confirmed that sexual contact between Congolese women and peacekeepers occurred frequently, usually in exchange for food or small sums of money, often involving girls under the age of 18, some as young as 13. This clearly contradicts UN standards, which prohibit any solicitation of prostitution, regardless of the age or consent of the person solicited.  

Since then, the UN General Assembly adopted further standards of conduct to prevent such misconduct[8], but sexual exploitation and abuse within MONUC remains a serious concern. In 2006, the UN recorded 176 allegations in which MONUC personnel were accused of having engaged in sexual exploitation or abuse[9]. In a press statement on 12 August 2008, the UN Secretary-General stated that he was "deeply troubled" by the outcome of a probe that revealed prima facie evidence that a number of Indian peacekeepers, previously assigned to one of the units with MONUC may have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse[10]

While a number of these allegations may eventually prove to be unsubstantiated, reports received from Congolese non‑governmental organizations, UN staff members and individual victims indicate that cases of sexual abuse of girls and solicitation for prostitution continue to occur and that, regrettably, some troop contingents fail to address these allegations with due diligence.  

Furthermore, shortcomings in the legal and procedural framework still allow perpetrators to escape criminal accountability, even where allegations can be substantiated and the perpetrator is removed from the Mission. In cases involving civilian peacekeepers, impunity may ensue if the perpetrator’s country of nationality does not exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction over crimes of sexual exploitation and abuse. These jurisdictional problems do not apply to military personnel, because military penal codes generally provide for their extraterritorial application. However, cumbersome procedures often prevent the successful prosecution of soldiers. 

On the other hand, the UN still lacks a mechanism to provide victims of sexual abuse with adequate compensation. Nor are there any mechanisms to ensure that fathers of babies born from relationships between MONUC personnel and Congolese women pay child support.  

Priorities for Policy and Action 

The humanitarian and human rights situation in the DRC, as briefly described above, is overwhelming. The immense suffering of the Congolese women, although extensively discussed, remains trivial within the re-construction process. The Government of the DRC, jointly with the international community, must prioritize efforts to bring peace to women’s bodies, support their initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and provide them with a just and secure environment.    

What needs to be done towards this end is obvious and has been articulated in numerous reports and speeches. The international normative framework is also in place, including the Rome Statute (1998) of the International Criminal Court and the most recently adopted Security Council resolution 1820 on sexual violence during armed conflict (2008), among others. What is lacking is political determination.  

The following priority areas of concern in the DRC need to be addressed simultaneously as a matter of great urgency: 

Care and treatment

Many survivors of sexual violence are severely injured, since most rapes are collective and carried out with an extraordinary brutality. Data collected by the Provincial Synergy for South Kivu showed that more than 26,000 women in the province sought medical assistance for rape‑related injuries in 2006. In 2007, 38,000 persons received treatment for sexual violence in the medical centres of UNICEF and its partners. Between January and September 2007 Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) treated around 3,000 victims of sexual violence in the Kivus. The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu treats about 3,500 women every year for severe genital injuries caused by rape and other forms of sexual assault. In Bunia, MSF working at Bon Marchè Hospital treats around 150 victims of sexual violence every month.  

Many rape victims suffer vaginal fistula, most of which could be treated with a surgical operation, but local health centers lack necessary equipment and trained medical staff. The few existing specialized medical hospitals, such as the Panzi Hospital (Bukavu, South Kivu) or the DOCS Clinic (Goma, North Kivu), are overwhelmed and are geographically inaccessible for many women. 

First and foremost, all women survivors of sexual violence must have access to medical and psycho-social care. This requires enhancing the capacity of the existing health centers, identifying victims in remote areas through local women’s groups and ensuring access without delay. While direct funding to the health sector from international donors is essential, funds made available to the government must also be sufficiently channeled for the care of victims of violence. 

Establishing livelihood security

The economic infrastructure of the country is in general destroyed and the vast majority of people are living in abject poverty. Women survivors of rape are particularly deprived as they are often ostracized and rejected by their own families and communities and end up destitute and have to struggle for their mere survival. Many of these women and their children live on the street relying on hand out or help from local NGOs. Some of these women have joined forces to re-establish their lives collectively but they lack resources. 

In the course of armed conflict, armed groups forcefully recruited thousands of women and girls as porters, cooks, etc. and many were also sexually exploited or raped. As of December 2007, 124,000 combatants had been demobilized. Of these, 99,538 were men, 2,610 were women and 22,075 were minors (of which 2,075 were girls)[11]. While the demobilized fighters were given a small grant, job training and equipment to begin a civilian livelihood, women who were associated with armed groups but did not actively take part in combat did not qualify for assistance.  

Gender equality, women’s political and economic empowerment, as well as reduction of violence against women must be integral to development cooperation policies and programmes. This means, increasing women’s options and enhancing their capabilities through prioritizing their access to productive resources and to decision-making. In this regard, acknowledging and building on women’s agency - even under the most disempowering conditions of war- and supporting local women’s initiatives provides a sound starting point in designing development programmes.  

The justice and security sector

Neither justice nor security exists in the DRC today. The justice system is in a deplorable state and lacks the capacity to handle even the relatively small number of rape cases that reach it. The MONUC Human Rights Division in South Kivu analyzed the 287 cases of sexual violence that were reported to the military and civilian justice authorities during the period 2005-2007. In July 2007, 162 of the 287 reported cases were still under investigation; 60 per cent of these cases had been under investigation for more than one year. Only 64 cases have been tried, resulting in 58 convictions. It is estimated that only two per cent of cases of sexual violence reach the justice system in South Kivu[12]

The Law on sexual violence, adopted in 2006, requires the courts to conclude a case within three months after it is brought to the justice system. This norm is of a purely aspirational nature in light of the realities on the ground. The justice sector is severely under-resourced and understaffed. For instance, in July 2007, there were only two civilian judges in Mbandaka (Equateur), a city with almost one million inhabitants. These two judges were also expected to cover cases referred from other localities, some located hundreds of kilometers away.  

The lack of resources also affects the military justice system which has jurisdiction over most cases involving gross human rights violations. The few investigations and prosecutions that have been carried out in relation to such cases have all virtually relied on MONUC’s support. 

The 2005 and 2006 national budgets allocated a mere 0.6 per cent to the justice system. This must be raised to at least two per cent if a functioning of justice is to be realized, and more justice personnel must be deployed to the provinces. Improvement of the justice system can also provide a viable entry point to crack down on corruption, military and political interventions that belittle justice. In the Kivus for instance, MONUC observed that high ranking military officers were adjudicating cases, including rape cases, in which their soldiers were implicated. As a result of their interference, obstruction and engagement in out-of-court settlement rape cases, three alleged perpetrators were set free in South Kivu. In North Kivu, a FARDC commander in Muhangi admitted having engaged and facilitated an out-of-court settlement of a rape case where the victim was a 14 year-old girl[13]

The security sector is also far from delivering stability and peace. Protection of women and civilian population is not on the reform agenda, which primary focuses on demobilization, thereby giving militia and soldiers the choice to either reintegrate into civilian life or join a unified national army. Those who choose to join the army will be sent to training centres (centres de brassage), where they are to receive training before being redeployed in integrated units. The programme has been marred by inefficiency and insufficient funding. According to Government estimates, more than 100,000 fighters are still awaiting to be processed. 

While in principle perpetrators of human rights violations can be excluded from joining the army, in practice, this has not happened. Men known to have committed serious crimes have even been given command positions. Authorities acknowledge that major perpetrators have been integrated into the FARDC and argue that they will be brought to justice once disarmament is completed and peace restored. 

Lessons learned from other post-conflict situations show that security without justice simply does not happen. Therefore, the security sector reform must implement a systematic vetting process for all branches of the security forces to ensure that officers accused of having committed human rights violations are discharged and prosecuted accordingly. In this respect, collaboration with the UN initiative to map human rights violations committed between 1993 and 2003 is essential. It is also important that efforts be made towards the implementation of the Law on sexual violence, including by raising awareness of its provisions through public campaigns and training of security forces, the judiciary, law enforcement officials and the military.  

Finally, given the ongoing human rights violations, particularly in the Kivu, there is an urgent need to launch a comprehensive international initiative to improve the security of the civilian population, in particular women, focusing on the role of foreign armed groups.  

Concluding Comments

It must be borne in mind that war-related rape in the DRC is intimately linked to gender-based discrimination against women in times of ‘peace’. The war has further distorted gender relations and reduced women to mere objects that can be raped, tortured and mutilated with impunity. Without addressing gender relations and supporting women’s empowerment as a priority, high levels of rape will persist and present a destabilizing factor, even if a degree of stability, the rule of law and democratic, civilian control over the armed forces are established.  

* This article is based on the Special Rapporteur’s mission report, submitted to the Human Rights Council in March 2008 (A/HRC/7/6/Add.4).

[1] See reports of the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo (S/2001/357 and S/2002/1146).

[2] An armed group dominated by Rwandan Hutu extremists.

[3] See Humanitarian Action Plan for the DRC, December 2007.

[4] See report by the Secretary-General on the DRC, 3 July 2008 (S/2008/433) and report of the International Parliamentary Expert mission addressing impunity for sexual crimes in the DRC, Justice, Impunity and Sexual Violence in the DRC, May 2008, by the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights and the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region from Africa. See also Amnesty International’ report  No End to war on women and children, North Kivu, DRC, July 2008, noting that an NGO network active mainly in Masisi and Goma areas recorded 224 new rape cases in the first three months of 2008, of which 30% were attributed to armed group fighters, 8% to FARDC soldiers and the rest to civilians.

[5] In the past months, in my capacity as Special Rapporteur, I have received reports of specific cases of women who are under eminent danger. I have communicated these to the Government of DRC and to MONUC. To my knowledge, no action has yet been taken to protect the individuals concerned. 

[6] This is an action committee that brings together governmental, civil society and UN representatives.

[7] See my mission report on DRC for numerous other cases of similar armed reprisals by State security forces in the province.

[8] The Secretary‑General appointed Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al‑Hussein, Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN, to develop a comprehensive strategy on sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations. The strategy was debated in the UN General Assembly (GA) in April 2005 and a number of Zeid’s recommendations have been adopted. In July 2007, the GA recommended that standards of conduct, including standards on sexual exploitation, be included in the revised draft model memorandum of understanding between the UN and troop‑contributing countries.

[9] See “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse” report of the Secretary‑General, 15 June 2007 (A/61/957) annex IV.

[11] See Multi-Country Demobilization and Reintegration Programme 2008, Monthly Statistical Progress Report, December 2007.  The numbers were said provisional due to changes in the system of registration and accounting in the DRC.

[12] See report from the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights and the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region from Africa, op.cit.

[13] See MONUC Monthly Rights Assessment, April 2008.

Sist oppdatert: 11.11.2008
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